A History of My world in 10 1/2 Haircuts
A History of My world in 10 1/2 Haircuts
Kool Kut, Loughborough Junction, 2023
Last week, I went for a haircut. This might seem like an unremarkable opening, but the journey to the chair that gray Friday afternoon was both fraught and circuitous. As I hurtle towards early middle age, my hair is beginning to thin and keeping hold of it, and what it means to me is important.
I hate “As a…” writing. In fact, my entire family has stubbornly declined to be defined by ‘As A’ even with our Caribbean roots, and deeply mixed heritage. For me, this is all legible through hair. I have no interest in announcing who I am with an ‘As A’ every time I walk into a room, but my hair is a passive nod to so much of what has made me. My mixed race is not a badge of identity, so much as a statement of fact. Whilst in danger of sailing dangerously close to OJ (As in his infamous ‘I’m not Black, I’m OJ’ quote, not the more infamous domestic abuse and murder ) territory, I am more likely to tell you that ‘I’m an intellectual snob’ or ‘I’m a cyclist’ before I tell you that ‘I’m mixed race’. That’s not to say the last of these things has not been a fundamental part of what has shaped me, but it alone has been neither definitive nor determinative; it has sat alongside growing up working class, son of a single mother, and then the whiplash of scholarships to private schools and three years at an ‘elite’ university, or latterly, six years living in East Asia. Of course race matters, but it is both a fact and a construct, and honestly, I grew up in a family environment that strove to look beyond it in order not to be defined by it.
Within this context, as a light skin mixed race man who grew up around women and sounds a little like the BBC until he attempts a ‘th’, I find finding a barber, where I feel comfortable, difficult. Though the hair fits, I don’t have the patois, the braggadocio or the finer appreciation of the Premier League to participate in the tropes. It’s not that it’s unintelligible, it’s more like the performance is a game for which I know the rules but have little aptitude. I find it entertaining to watch, just don’t sub me onto the pitch. Some London barbershops are fine with this. Others are not. And it’s usually not until I am sitting on the chair, wrapped in the polyester cape with the clippers buzzing round my head that it becomes apparent which I am in.
In the wrong chair, what should be a reaffirming experience becomes one that alienates.
Thankfully Kool Kut were very ‘cool’ about it all.
Kosmos, Streatham, 1990
The first haircut I remember was at a Cypriot barber near where I grew up in Streatham. He had a black chipboard plank that he’d place on the arms of the barbers chair before helping me up onto the raised seat. I don’t remember much about the haircut but I remember enjoying being the centre of his focus for those 20-odd minutes. He had a sharply trimmed white beard and a gently receding hairline in matching white. I assume my mother chose that barber because he was ‘the barber’; next door to ‘the greengrocer’, across the road from ‘the bank’ and round the corner from ‘the baker’. It was the very end of the 1980s and the dying embers of the kind of unvarnished local shopping precinct that is now sought after and knowingly recreated in zone two neighbourhoods that estate agents have recently bestowed the honorific of ‘village’ upon.
My first hair memory though predates this. I remember sitting in my buggy in a graffiti covered lift heading up to someone’s flat in a (probably now a much desired now ex-)council estate in Knights Hill. In that front room, on furniture covered in thick clear protective plastic sat at least half a dozen women, along with at least twice as many children, playing and crying and napping about them. The air was thick with conversation, laughter and the burnt-hair smell of hydroxide straightening chemicals. I remember waiting. In my mind, we were there for hours waiting in this front-room Afro salon. It seemed that ‘getting my hair done’ for my mother was ‘waiting’ elevated to a high art form.
My adult self could speculate about the lives of these women, the small victories and troubles and consolations they might have been sharing, or how they scraped together the crisply straightened notes that paid for these hair treatments; not a luxury but a necessity to face all that they had to carry. But all I knew is that in that space, that distinctly feminine space, hidden away in that spotless flat, they were happy, and once her hair was done,
Despite all the other things she had to do, that might never be done, my mother was happy.
Starsky’s Barber Hutch, Tooting, 1993
There must have been something I recognised, seeing my mother in that particular space, like a shared secret, that made me feel like I needed my own version of, because as I got a little older, I was pestering her to take me to a barber of my own choosing; Starsky’s Barber Hut. In truth, I didn’t choose Starsky’s. There was a boy at my Primary School who had the Mortal Kombat dragon cut into the back of his ‘fro which I had become mildly obsessed with. The barber? Starsky’s. Considering how violent the video game was, it didn’t seem like the most age-appropriate trim – I never would have been allowed to play the game and we could never have afforded the console anyway, but nonetheless, I wanted in. Gamely, my mother agreed to take me, and though I was banned from any of the more ornate hair designs that were popular at the time, I didn’t care; I was going to Starsky’s.
I can remember the Saturday morning she took me. Like that front room in Knights Hill, it was black space, but unlike that front room, it was an unabashedly male space. As we took a seat in the ‘queue’ and the RnB crackled and bounced out from the half-busted, bass-boosted speakers, what I felt was less anticipation and more apprehension. It must have been an equally intimidating space for my mother, these black men, performing their pantomime of West Indian maleness tinged with what I now know to be the insecure misogyny that seems to linger in male dominated spaces from barbershop to boardroom. Eventually my hair was cut. She paid. We left.
I never went back to Starsky’s. Part of me wanted to. Or wanted to want to. My hair fitted, instinctively this was somewhere I should belong, but I didn’t. Was I not ‘black enough’? Did I just not sit easily with its masculinity? Was it simply the petty snobbery of my family; these were the kind of folks that we would pejoratively refer to as ‘back-a-yard’ people; my grandmother preserving a very particular lower-middle class snobbery of empire even as she migrated to the working classes of the mother country when she came over in ‘62. The next time I needed a cut, I went back to Kosmos. At least I felt welcome.
Jo Hair Design, Mitcham Lane, 1999
Jo’s opened on Mitcham Lane a year or two after I had started secondary school. It was probably the closest I ever got to finding my own version of that front room in Knight’s Hill. Jo, was a light-skinned Jamaican guy who must have been in his early 50s when he opened his shop, but I think if someone had told me he was 35, or 65, I would have believed either. Jo’s barber shop gave off a much more relaxed vibe. Probably closer to gentler, island stereotypes that those who only see the Caribbean through the rose-tinted lens of tropical fetishisation might recognise. Perhaps it was generational – he was closer to my grandmother’s cohort than mine, those who had seen the end of empire and the initial optimism of independence and distanced themselves from the street violence that the War on Drugs exported to Jamaica in the 80s and 90s.
This was the Jamaica – at least in spirit – of the independence era, the one that chose the motto ‘Out of Many, One People’ when it left the Empire and joined the Commonwealth, the Jamaica that trade union leader Alexander Bustamante would become the first Prime Minister of. My great-grandfather left Jamaica around 1960, with my mother leaving in 1962, aged four with my 22 year old Grandmother. (“on a plane, Adam, not a boat”). When John “Robbie” Robinson went back in the 1980s to retire, swapping a five-bed in Stockwell for a big house with a mango tree in the hills around Kingston, that Jamaica was gone. Taking him for a glass of red wine during his last visit to the UK in the late 00s when he was in his 90s, he told me to never go back. My mother’s great aunt, Edith Nelson, worked with Bustamante and would go on to be assistant General Secretary of the Jamaica Workers Union, work for which she received an MBE from the Governor General on Queen Elizabeth’s behalf in the 1968 New Years Honors list. I was related to Jamaican Labour royalty. But since the politricks had descended into paramilitary violence it was unlikely that anyone in our family would be heading back to claim our throne. It was an imagined Kingston of these myths that Jo’s shop took me too, with old Kung Fu movies permanently playing on a small black and white TV above the mirrors and his half-drunk Supermalt on the counter.
As I prepared for my exams, so did he, and around the same time I got my A-levels, he completed the plumbing course that I had been helping him with, his sometimes halting literacy a reminder of Papa John’s complete inability to read. Hair’s loss was plumbing’s gain.
‘Black Skinhead’, Oxford, March 2006
At university, I was all over the place, and in all truth, so was my hair. There were team buzz-cuts for sports events that made us look like starving convicts, and unruly plaits executed on lazy, stoned evenings by bored college-mates. I can’t really remember where I got my hair cut, or really if I had it cut that often at all. I hated that skinhead though. Cut right to the skin in the midst of a bitterly cold false spring, preparing for my boat race against Cambridge in the ‘lightweight’ rowing sub-category (“rowing for the physically impaired” as one obnoxious full blue referred to it). We were lean, angry and hungry and we (I never quite divined from where this general will had emerged) wanted hair to match.The week of the race in a farmhouse kitchen on Crazies Hill, we sat on a dining chair, and, one by one, each of us were shorn.
Though not every one of us. I remember one or two holdouts. At the time, I ridiculed them but now looking back, I admire them, and I think at the time I probably envied them. I wish I hadn’t felt the need to fit in so acutely, to subsume myself into an elite little collective, to belong. Not just that crew (though rowing isn’t the most obvious choice of sport for a kid from Streatham) but that whole institution. I desperately wanted to fit in, ideally by standing out, like all the other insecure extroverts that littered the university’s quads. Arguably it was those that blended in that stood out. The quiet assured type pursuing their passions, who were a little more sure of their preferences, who knew themselves well enough to be able to say ‘I don’t know’. That haircut was an act of supplication, my ‘fro a votive offering to the eternal proctors. Maybe I was overcompensating after trying too hard to ‘fit in by standing out’ in my first year. I had tried to ingratiate myself with the self-described ‘good lad’ crowd at my college, but it never really worked. I was thrown out of undergraduate accommodation at the end of my first term for one too many late night parties, trying too hard to make myself the centre of something.
I loved rowing for the Oxford Lightweights. It gave me a claim to the place and that claim gave me license to find my place within it. I settled into a happy groove between the rowers and the ravers and formed a close group of friends with a few others who resolutely wouldn’t be pigeonholed. I stopped trying so hard to perform and began to experience the place. And after that skinhead, I let my hair find its own way too.
Dreadlocks, Self-styled, 2008
The second half of my three years at university were far more enjoyable and far less choreographed. I grew my hair out with no clear purpose or intent. I think someone plaited it for me one stoned Saturday afternoon as it was something to do while we did very little. My BBC English was still (and still is) flecked with MLE and still lacks those ‘th’-es much to my Malaysian partner’s amusement, but generically middle-class sounding enough. In the bleak midwinter, I probably looked pale enough to pass to the majority of my peers who had grown up outside the UKs major cities, so my hair was my marker; to explain the complementary and contradictory things that made me who I was. Left to its own devices over my last years at Oxford, my hair dreaded itself into a glorious mop of even, natural locs; no wax, no interlocking, just the occasional absent minded twist from me. I’d riff off my own hair, juxtaposing different linguistic codes and pieces of my own experiences across class and culture to avoid being labelled; when people got close to reducing me to one thing, I’d duck and wheel around, confounding the assumption they were just about to make. My locs were the internal gyroscope that gave me this social agility.
I revelled in that insider-outsider status, the ability to bait and switch across class codes and racial assumptions that let me wrongfoot so many. I’d used it to my advantage since my mid teens and it had been particularly useful when it had come to dating at university. My relationship with my heritage is very much a personal one; of course It sits in a wider context, but everyone’s story is an assemblage of parts. I truly don’t believe anyone is one hundred percent anything. It’s just less obvious to those that are in the middle of the arbitrary discrete boxes that nationality and race and all the other lies that bind, have drawn on a continuous field of humanity.
It’s why I never joined ‘BlackSoc’ while I was at Oxford, or the Oxford African and Caribbean Society, to give it its formal name. I am sure it played an important role for some people, but to me it looked like a dating agency for people who felt unable to date outside of racial lines. I found its proper name even stranger. Where and when I grew up, there had been a half-joking, though sometimes quite vicious edge between Caribbean and African folks, driven by different histories of migration, intersectionality of class, and the complex shadow of the ‘sell-side’ of the slave trade. Not everyone in the Caribbean looks at history through a Garvian worldview.
University can be a lonely place, especially if you see yourself – or are seen as – an outside. Race is an obvious vehicle for both alienation and belonging, but there are so many other intersecting ones when it comes to the ‘uni experience’ in Britain that I didn’t feel it as this all-encompassing trump card in the same way as I might if I had grown up in the US. The “blackest” person I knew at Oxford was an Old Etonion who is now a very diligent and very successful Tory MP. If he ever takes a run at PM, I don’t know if I would vote based on some shared bits of phenotype alone. Lovely chap though.
Abraham’s Barber, Reliance Arcade, 2014
I grew my dreads out through my mid 20s a few times. Had I known then, that a decade later I’d be struggling to grow it out at all, I would have savored the carefree abandon of young hair more. In 2014, I was living in central Brixton with a girlfriend leftover from the end of university. Inertia and a very good deal on rent had held us together longer than we should have been. I was an awful partner and we both wanted different things. We’d finally been forced to make a decision when it became apparent that she’d be leaving London for the next part of her career. We separated, I took an offer of a secondment to Singapore and I shaved my dreads.
My locs had become a dendrochronology of the chapter I was leaving behind. Suddenly they felt heavy with the weight of all the fuck-ups of my 20s. The meaning of symbols evolve over time, and suddenly my hair was the person I wanted to leave behind. Where once it had been a connection to my heritage, the locs now felt like a head of hedonism that I needed to shrug off. As I sat in the barber’s chair, a young-ish Caribbean woman berated the barber for committing the black on black crime of “cutting off a rasta’s dreads”. But as Andre 3000 asked: “Is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall?”
‘Barber Uncle’, Beach Road, Singapore, 2016
Moving to Singapore was a visceral experience of how coding changes in context. I was an anglophone westerner turning up to work a well paid middle class job. I was immediately thrown into the box marked ‘expat’. Singapore is an extraordinarily dissonant place. An open global city-state that propagates a chauvinistic nationalism that is defined by its status as the ‘little red dot’, a historic insult now worn as a badge of pride. It promotes a deeply conservative mode of identity that is also wholly cosmopolitan, not being defined by one single race or language. It’s ‘heartland’ resident – the true blue Singaporeans, complain about highly paid expatriates taking good jobs from locals, but their quality of life is sustained by the invisible bulk of foreign workers, the almost 1 million low wage, low skill Work Pass holders and Foreign Domestic Workers that make up the vast majority of the 1.3million foreigners working in a country of less than 5 and a half million.
Cycling around the island early on a Sunday morning, you’d see them getting their haircut at makeshift roadside barbers around their dormitory complexes, the triple-stacked, triple-bunk portacabins where these men from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Myanmar, would sleep between their shifts, driven from the dusty hinterlands of the island to the building sites of the downtown. Though I was an economic migrant too, it wasn’t the same for me. But if I couldn’t claim solidarity with them, I could at least distance myself from the champagne brunches and Bali weekends that were so typical for the gilded few that inspired the Singaporean citizens’ ire, so I tried to stand still and watch closer and listen more, to understand what made the place tick beyond the CBD. I’d always be an outsider, but I wanted to be an informed one.
In Singapore, I could feel faint echoes of the Empire that permeated through my own family tree. Guinness and heat. Condensed Milk. Broken English pieced into a new whole, Nahs and Lahs. So I spent time in the dense concrete suburbs that make up the majority of the country beyond the Grand Prix, Gardens by the Bay, Guidebook Singapore. I wandered HDB estates to admire the accidental Courbusier of the island’s public housing. I rode long MRT journeys to eat at Kopitiams beyond the condos. I wanted to balance my assumed neo-coloniser status with an affinity with another equatorial island. I got my hair cut for 5 dollars a time at various nameless barber shops in the bottom of 1970s housing blocks around the island, struggling all the while to find a decent fade. The best of the bunch was an old Chinese Singaporean man with a suspect mullet cutting under an old ceiling fan in an open-fronted store with a single chair in the back of Beach road. It was a better option than Toni & Guy.
Tanah Merah Complex, Singapore, November 2018
The most significant haircut I had in Singapore was my last. It’s also the least important to this history. On my third morning, I received a number one all over along with a half-size plastic toothbrush and the number; S5906. But that’s a story for another time.
Slot Afro Barber, Mirador Mansion, Kowloon, April 2019
After Singapore. Southern China. My partner was working for a major Chinese tech firm so I moved in with her, behind the Great Firewall, splitting my time between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Commuting once a week between the PRC and the SAR in the midst of the Hong Kong protest movement was a surreal experience, straddling these ‘two systems’ that a shared lineage of centuries of culture and commerce across the Pearl River Delta, but were now like twins adopted by radically different sets of parents. Though it was being brutally eroded, the chaotic, cosmopolitan spirit of Hong Kong was a stark contrast to the stage-managed set pieces of Shenzhen’s luxury automated authoritarianism.
Shenzhen was a fascinating and hugely impressive place to live but also unsettling. From our apartment we could see as much of the city as the haze would allow, stretching 80 kilometers east to west, and only 10 deep North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river just next to where we lived was filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. The city had phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out through your phone’s digital wallets. This Cashless, silent, sleek panopticon acted as an equal and opposite of its ‘open’ neighbor and as a giant billboard for ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’; or more accurately, ‘Capitalism Unencumbered by Democracy’.
My weekly commute would take me from Chinese acquaintances who wondered why Hong Kong people caused so much trouble, past the Nanshan stadium that had become a temporary military base as the protest continued, due to its proximity to the Shenzhen Bay bridge and the motorway that led to the heart of Hong Kong Island, and on to an office in North Point where many of my young colleagues would come into the agency coughing from teargas attacks by police the night before.
During my two years in China, I became mildly obsessed with podcasts. My partner’s work took her all across the country and I would often have days where the only people I spoke to were Ira Glass (this American Life) Nate, Galen and the crew (fivethirtyeight) or Lionel, Richard and Daniel (The Cycling Podcast) I learned a little Mandarin, but those voices along with my mid-weekly trips to the office kept me sane in an otherwise luxurious but lonely existence. Crossing the bridge to Hong Kong also afforded me a few other things that I couldn’t get in the PRC; my half a week late Weekend FT, boozy Wednesday night chats with Jambo at The Pontiac, as well as a proper haircut. In a run-down little three story mall in Kowloon, Slot Barbers was in a second floor unit, run by a few of Hong Kong’s African diaspora and drew a crowd that ranged from Stock traders who had taxied over from the Island to transhippers off to the Canton Fair, diplomatic-looking types in sweat wrinkled suits through to dealers in dark streetwear taking a break from the night shift in LKF. It wasn’t the best haircut and it certainly wasn’t the cheapest, but I felt more welcome there than I ever did at Starsky’s and they gave me something precious I could walk through customs with when I crossed back to Shenzhen.
RnB Barber, Mitcham Lane, Streatham, 2021
Completely unconnected, I moved back to the UK at the start of the pandemic. We spent the first six months living with a good friend of mine from university, whose wife was stuck in the US, leaving him rattling around five bedrooms in central Brixton. He was kind enough to make it seem like we were doing him a favour, but as the early summer of April 2020 wore on, I knew how lucky we were for the space and his extended hospitality. The three of us took turns cooking, my partner painted, I got a job I hated to get a mortgage we needed for a home we wanted.
By September 2020 though, after an extended summer escape to Spain, it was time to end our overstay. I moved into a flat owned by my uncle in Streatham, directly underneath the one that I had grown up in with my mother and that he and my mother had both been brought up in by my grandmother, who after living for more than two decades in America had returned to Britain and to that same flat that had been leased by my family since the 1960s.
To me, it felt like some kind of symbolic defeat. I had gone so far to come back to quite literally below where I had started. Kosmos was under new ownership and Jo had already moved on. As we slouched towards our second Covid Christmas, the nearest barber, RnB, accommodated me for an overdue trim. I looked out on the same high street I had grown up on. The long-gone baker was a vape shop. At least there was some progress. I thought about my grandmother, who had raised my mother and my uncle mostly alone, the complexities of her stories, the violence of my uncle’s father, my mum’s time in foster care, the struggles of a single black mother in 1960s Britain aren’t mine to tell. We both had gone around the world only to come back. Only you can’t go back, you can only return, because neither the person nor the place are the same. My uncle had learned a few languages, moved to Paris, raised a family and was in the late prime of a varied journalism career. My mum had singlehandedly raised me and armed me with enough cultural capital to leverage my way to where I had got to so far. So many stories had spun out from that little flat in Streatham, even if I was in the same place, it was all new growth. I was engaged, getting married next year. We were waiting for renovation to be completed on a new home. I’d quit that job as soon as we completed. Sitting in RnB, that trim was a moment to contemplate all that. How far we’d all gone and how much was still to come.
It’s been almost 6 months since my last fresh blog post. My rolling list has 10+ pieces on it that I want to write and I have two, potentially never-to-be-published draft pieces on Singapore, rights and liberalism sitting on my desktop (One with the working title ‘ Just Because Your Paranoid’ and the other ‘The Pragmatism of Principle’- for those I know personally, if you want to have read, drop me an email). This very personal piece was drafted on a fast train London to Bristol to present my final UK debrief for a while to the marketing department of TSB (appropriately branded as ‘Local Banking for Britian’). And the High Contrast remix of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ has come on shuffle… the last song I listened to before I flew home temporarily two months ago. So bearing that in mind, you will excuse my indulgence in writing this piece rather than ‘The HDB Social Contract’ or ‘The Uniformity of Cool’ that are both still unwritten
Two months to close-up shop in London has been both quick and slow- the length of time I needed practically, but a strange, testing stretch. By the end, people in my office were commenting that they thought I had left already. Too short to get back into the rhythms of London; long enough to drink away the decent fitness I developed in 7 months of clean(ish) living in Singapore. Long enough to see the people I love and care about, but not long enough to do more than catch up and reminisce. And then back those relationships go into an odd kind of suspended animation, aging at a fraction of the speed of life.
So I am leaving London. Parting company with a city that is inextricably linked to my sense of who I am, and always will be. There are selfish reasons for this (smaller office, better career trajectory in a more placid talent pool), frivolous reasons (no reason not to gallivant round SE Asia for a few years of cheap sun and easy living) practical reasons (better wages and lower cost of living) but I want to talk about my philosophical reasons for the great love of my life and going ‘on a break’ while I have a fling with the Singaporean City-State’s great social experiment. Perhaps what follows is an intellectual alibi rather than a reasoned decision, but I think it doesn’t make the points any less valid.
I would like to caveat this, with the genuine belief that London still remains the cross the board leading global centre. There is a toughness and a care, a beauty and depravity, a blend of high culture and low morals, international ingredients marinated in local flavor that make it the accomplished all-rounder. New York lacks the self-effacement, San Francisco lacks the past, Paris lacks the Future. Sao Paulo the concentration of ‘Stuff’. Berlin lacks the work, and Singapore in truth, lacks the Play. I will always be a Londoner. And I will always give you a reason why ‘my town is better than your town’, even if I have never been to ‘your town’. But I have been privileged enough with this job to go to a lot of your towns and see the insides of your museums and markets and bars, not just the boardrooms and Business districts. And my town IS better than your town.
The problem is that London’s ‘better’ is no longer ‘good enough’ to justify the Faustian pact that you enter into when you top up your Oyster or sign your next Assured Shorthold Tenancy. The rent’s too damn high, the tube doesn’t work, it rains a lot; at rush hour it feels like a seething, stewing brooding ball of thinly suppressed resentment. You feel tough because you are part of it. As a do-eyed newcomes you suck it in and after 18 months call yourselves a London ( you’re not…just FYI… if your teen years involved being ferried by car to friends houses, then you just aren’t). If you grew up and/or started your professional life, anything else feels like a holiday, a dilettante indulgence. An unreality. Working 60 hour weeks in Singapore, I still felt like I was on holiday. I felt guilty. I rode my bike every morning. I read the weekend paper on the beach. I took a clean, seamless underground rail network to work that cost 35p a single journey. (Singapore is NOT expensive if you have lived in London; the Economist cost of living index is skewed by always including car ownership. Which is ridiculous as there is nowhere to drive and a Taxi all the way across the island is little more than a tenner) Singapore is in particularly stark contrast and I have my own reservations and thoughts, which remain in those unposted articles for the same reasons that they outline within them (consider the ‘message in the (lack of) medium’ in this instance) but my ex is in Glasgow now working as a neurosurgeon and she lives in a beautiful central neighbourhood in a two bed tenement flat for little more than her share of our old London rent. There is an art school, some museums, a vibrant music scene, great restaurants, local produce, Whisky. But every major city has some of this. And by major, this is not about global Alpha cities. There is a beauty amongst the Betas too. Yes, of course its easy to cling to the idea that London is better. Because it is. Better clubs, better galleries, better plays, better parks (that one is debatable) attracting better global people, forging better global links, hosting better businesses. But are any of these good enough to justify the structural issues. The creaking infrastructure and its vast expense? The lack of housing, exacerbated by (irony or ironies) Singaporean dentists and Russina Oligarchs alike buying flats as a new class of Global bond asset.
Unless I become a dotcom millionaire, I can’t see myself ever being secure and settled (and that could mean long term tenancies, not just ownership) in my hometown. Either you work in finance, are part of the global super-rich, or you persuade your parents to give you the deposit you have no chance. Raise your hand if you own in London. Good. Keep it raised if did this WITHOUT family money. Great, anyone left? Okay, and now keep it there if you don’t work in FS. Anyone there? Hmmmm…..
So the tense, (un)holy trinity at play here….’Variety’ (of people, things, everything), ‘possibility’ and (I am loathe to admit) ‘money’ made London, as I knew it, possible. Now money is choking out the other two. It is turning London into ‘London™’, a theme-park city that starts publicizing its own myth as ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ whilst forgetting what made it able to claim that. This is of course where I get accused of being one of those inverse snobs who is anti-nice things. I am not against change, I am against displacement. When Londoners don’t feel that there is a London for them. That everything that the city creates is as (a)overpriced, and (b)designed with a certain audience. These young, upwardly mobile, easily bored 20 and 30-somethings (and their middle-aged imitators), have the economic leverage to suck the air out of anything that isn’t an ‘artisnal’ ‘pop-up’ ‘street food’ ‘warehouse’ ‘craft’ crap-monger. This dystopian village is some way off, but it starts to look like whether by accident or design, that is the position that London will come to occupy in the global firmament. And to me, that isn’t London.
I know this second point is new and probably needs more explanation, but my train is pulling in soon, and any cogency of thought that I may have had is collapsing rapidly. This theme park London thrives on a confidence trick that supports the Cultural Ponzi Scheme that is ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ as well as an actual ponzi scheme that is the housing market (purchase and rental). I worry Theme Park London is far too profitable to be stopped, and will soon be ‘too big to fail’
If I were a braver man, I would work in a planning department of the GLA; I would join a think tank or work in social research. But I am a coward. So I am running away from home for a few years. It will always be home. I just don’t know if I will recognize it.
Where are you from?” It’s a simple question, one of the first phrases you are taught when we learn a foreign language. It’s one of the first questions we acquire because it lets us create a connection while at the same time helping us to understand difference. However, it is becoming ever-more loaded, and layered with implicits that cast long shadows over the question itself.
I remember being asked it recently, standing on one of those impressive but featureless blocks of Midtown that Manhattan does so well; imposing slabs of concrete made generic by the global duplication of these New York originals. An office worker, in shirtsleeves, outside, smoking a cigarette, approached me as I stood half intimidated by, half bored with the city around me.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from?”
“I’m from London…You know, London. In England”
“But where exactly are you from?”
“Streatham. I don’t know how well you know London, but it’s in the South”
“No, where are you from?”
The emphasis this final time made the unsaid question inescapable, despite my best evasions. The unspoken question here was ‘what are my ethnic origins’? Who was this pale-skinned, afro-haired, British accent loitering by my office fire escape? Not that you can hold this kind of question against the US. A young country, founded on a settler myth that revels in its ‘many’ that they melded into a ‘one’. It is a place where you struggle to find someone who will introduce themselves as ‘American’ rather than ‘-American’. It is a land obsessed with prefixes.
The answer that I didn’t give him puts me in an awkward situation in current political climes. I am a Londoner, born in Florida, to a Mother born in Jamaica and a British-Celtic father, whom I do not know and who’s mix includes, but is not limited to Jamaican Afro-Caribbean, Native Jamaican Tribes, Scottish, Puerto-Rican, Costa Rican and other assorted bits of South-and Central America; currently Living in Singapore and right this minute standing in New York. In all honesty, I don’t know how this answer would have helped him. My own background is a varied, but by no means an unusual or extreme mix. “Londoner,” with all its urban-liberality and cosmopolitan aspirations is a much easier ,and more accurate, handle. Even the answer ‘London in England’ could have been contentious for those who would see ‘English’ as an ethnic identity ( and there are plenty out there) who would argue that I don’t have “The Blood.” One wonders if this ‘Happie Fewe’ can claim this by being 45th generation Roman or 31st Norman or whether they need to trace back to 83rd generation Celt to be a true Brit.
This anecdote echoes of one of the most interesting sub-plots of the Scottish Independence referendum: who got to vote. Who got a say in the referendum raised contentious questions regarding statehood, nationality and identity, questions that are being played out in many different ways and in many different territories around the world.
Scots living south of the border were incensed at votes given to ‘non-Scots’ earning their living and paying their rates within Scotland. ‘Angus’ working for RBS in the City of London would have no say in how the homeland, (which he has not called home since he came down to ‘go up’ to ‘Another College, Oxbridge’) would be configured. This meant many who felt resolutely Scottish would not have any say on the future of Scotland, whilst English, Italians and Poles from Dumfries to Durness would decide. Did who got the franchise signal a proxy for future citizenship? Did that mean ‘Angus’ would never carry a Scottish passport? Would the Junior Doctor educated in the Thames estuary be offered this privilege? And why were they voting anyway if they are due to leave in 2 years time? Should they be made to ‘sign-up’ for Scotland? Who would be granted Scottish Citizenship? As history played out in the summer of 2014, these are specific hypotheticals that do not need an answer, but the broader questions they raise are in want of one. How do we define the composition of, and membership criteria for, out States? Do they need ‘national’ identities, and to what extent do or should) these identities align with ethnic ones?
Nationalism has not been as influential a force in politics since between the World Wars. Since blood was shed in the middle of the 20th century to defend the liberal-enlightenment experiment that started in the late 18th, the liberal-democratic ideal has dominated discourse. But this consensus is crumbling. With forces as varied as Scottish Nationalism and France’s Front Nationale, from UKIP to the Tea Party, we are seeing a new flourishing of anti-liberal politics that is obsessed with preserving its particular, mythical definition of the nation.
The sharp irony of this in our contemporary world should not be lost. There is a strong inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. We are seeing a flourishing of the politics of nationhood at a time when the nation has never been less relevant. Immigration quotas are as a feather on a tiger in the face of multi-lateral trade agreements that let foreign companies sue sovereign countries. Why worry about giving away benefits to ‘foreigners’ when you can’t get the your biggest retailers to pay a penny in tax. The ‘Nation-State’ is an anachronism in danger of becoming a redundancy. Sovereignty is undermined by Supra-, Post- and Transnational entities. The ultimate power for many branches of government lies with these overarching bodies, some elected, some not.
Elements are positive- the Kyoto treaty, the European Parliament and Courts, but others cripple nations- the strings attached to IMF loans, the loaded terms of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements, political handcuffs on developing world aid. At the same time multinational companies put governments into a Dutch auction on corporate tax, re-domiciling at will to find the most ‘tax-efficient’ regimes, shelling out on shell companies and creative accounting, dividing and conquering along tired out ‘national’ boundaries.
Traditional states are ill equipped to deal with this reality. Rather than adapting, what we are seeing politically is a rearranging of the deckchairs whilst the ship sinks. When you are committed to a free trade agreements that means you can’t stop factories and their jobs from moving around the world, how can it possibly make sense on an international level to stop labour from following? These kind of policies are trying to define and ‘fix’ a porous and pliable thing. Simply put, what the nation-state can do is far less important than what a supranational entity does.
There are some ‘nations’ doing better than others. One such example is Russia, which may be the last true nation-state left. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine embody the persistence of the Ancien Regime, or if not resilience, then at least the last 19th Century National act. Many argue that this move comes from a position of weakness. In some respects, this is true, Russia is weak by 21st Century measures. Reliant on its vast hydrocarbon deposits, maintaining a huge standing army and lacking in any real ‘soft power’, it is an isolated belligerent. But by 19th Century measures it is today the greatest of great powers. Strong, self-sufficient and heavily armed- exactly what a Nation-State was meant to be. This may explain the disconnect between how the world sees Russia and Vladimir Putin and how Russia and Vladimir Putin see themselves. That sanctions are leaving them cut off from the global economy merely serves to underline their splendid isolation, and despite weakness by modern metrics, such as the price of the Ruble, Putin’s strong leader ‘routine’ is real, and this sabre-rattling (and sabre-wielding) is both a bizarre and comical throwback to a previous age and a genuine threat to contemporary Weltpolitiks.
Within this context, China is a unique case-study. On one hand, Capitalism, unhampered by Democracy is driving unfettered and uneven growth, whilst a highly centralised and all-encompassing state remains firmly in control. Yet for all China’s brinkmanship in the South China Sea, it is also tied to the supranational. Reliance on exports, huge foreign currency surplus and the major role of international business in driving their national growth means that they are in a strong negotiating position, but they are still reliant on the same transnational networks and bodies, making them unlikely to ‘do a Putin’.
In sharp contrast, the contemporary Poleis that are currently enjoying the most success are those configured to compete in this 21st Century landscape; global oddities such as Singapore, Dubai or Qatar. In an era when companies and treaties and markets subsume and subdue ‘national’ sovereignty, it is these ‘Corporate States’ that are proving the most competitive.
The past success of the Capitalist-Democratic Enlightenment experiment was contingent on the tension between the Capitalistic and the Democratic playing out primarily intra-state. The state could negotiate that tension between man as citizen and man as producer/consumer, holding it in a kind of dynamic equilibrium through tariffs and taxes, incentives and fiscal policy that could harness business for greater goods. Regulation and incentivisation could be used to trim and tweak and capital was ultimately answerable to the state where the sovereign power lay and its freedom to do business was derived from. In the late 20th century, two things happen to reverse this arrangement, leaving most governments ultimately answerable to the Market and its actors.
Firstly, the vast mountains of government debt that modern states carry need maintaining. These loans are like an open wound meaning that, even as the rate of flow is slowed, you still need to transfuse more blood. For governments, this means increasing the tax take. There are two solutions for that; either an election-losing tax hike, or ever-increasing economic growth to increase the take without changing the rate. Either take a bigger slice of pie, or make the pie bigger. One of the flaws in democracy is that with 5-years terms and a strong self-preservation instinct amongst the ruling class, the latter was really the only option. That means pushing consumerism over citizenship. Liberalisation of debt (lets not call it ‘credit’, lets call it what it is), propping up of property bubbles and low interest rates all encourage spending over saving and help drive this agenda. Secondly, the rapid globalisation of production and trade meant that companies are increasingly untied from their national moorings. Don’t like the Tax in the UK? Lets nominally HQ in Ireland. Run up debts in countries with high tax regimes and funnel your profits through friendly regimes engaged in this race to the bottom to encourage companies to domicile as part of the revenue transfusion they are chasing. The net effect is that Capitalist Democracies are both in hoc and in thrall to groups that are more powerful, more transient and less accountable. They are failing to hold capital to account on behalf of its citizens because it is too dependent on it. And unlike a Nation-State, these transnational actors are neither tied nor answerable to a given territory.
Singapore, Qatar or Dubai ( and arguably to a lesser extent, tax havens like Monaco, the Cayman Islands or Amazon’s favourite, Luxembourg) are not the most successful states by many Enlightenment metrics. Lack of transparency, accountability and, very often, individual rights leave these places with a (rightly) questionable global image in liberal circles. Yet they succeed by competing on equal terms with these supranational actors by functioning like a corporation. Lack of accountability is the shadow cast by taking a 20 year view (often through an absence of any real democracy). It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious future-facing plans are being carried out in these countries- the transformation of Dubai to a global business & leisure hub pre-empting the brevity of their oil windfall, or Singapore’s ambitious and Orwellian plans to create a fully wired nation, offering “anticipatory government” or Qatar’s museum building binge as part of its play for regional hub status. Rather than thinking of mandate, they think about brand. They are Marketeer-States. They use their airlines and tourist boards, infrastructure and diplomacy to project a very specific image, engaging in global charm offensives to assert their soft power. They proletyze for free labour as much as they do for free trade, though for the unskilled it is often akin to slave labour. They are engaged in battles that are about ideas rather than islands or territory. Most interestingly though, they wrap these 21st Century modes of government in heavily modified modern variants of Nationalism, designed to bind together their citizens as shareholders, employees and shared-custodians of their joint projects. Singapore’s upcoming 50th birthday celebrations, or the sharply defined exclusivity of the Emirati class in the UAE are all variants of this. It is also often accompanied by a healthy dose of paternalism- or perhaps rather ‘dividend’ through charity, social housing, public services and open immigration being counterbalanced with closed ‘citizen-shareholder’ status. In many respects Nationalism is hugely important to these states in order to succeed in a Post-Nation age. It is interesting to note the similarities of approach taken despite a clearly tribal-ethnic dimension in the UAE compared with the explicitly Multi-ethnic, Multi-religious element to Singaporean ‘corporate culture’.
It is not just amongst the corporate-dictator state where new experiments in governance are occurring. The growing primacy of cosmopolitan Alpha cities at the expense of their ‘host’ nation (most notably in my hometown of London vs the rest of the UK) reflects the problematic nature of the 19th Century nation state as a 21st century form of governance. As a unit it is both too big and too small. Too big to have the dynamism of the city, too small to have the power of the supranational. The emerging possibilities of ‘bigger than’ are starting to be demonstrated by the EU’s balls in making a legal challenge against Google. No single country could have managed this, yet the federated European polis might stand a chance.
The most interesting experiment in Post-Nation nationalism is currently happening in the desert of Syria and Iraq. Turbocharged by cheap connectivity and a sadistic talent for publicity, ISIS has rapidly emerged as ‘the strangest flashmob in history’. Rather than being a state in the most formal sense, it is a dynamic, sinister banding together of disgruntled young men from around the world with a loose set of shared values, moving like a heavily armed swarm across the Middle East. Rather than being a state operating without Nationalism, it is a Post-Nation without a state, able to fluidly transpose itself from place to place deriving an identity from a sense of affiliation derived and bastardised from one of the great world religions. It is a wholly 21st century invention; the weirdest corners of the internet made flesh. And it has proved to be a roaring success.
Perhaps this is where the staunchest Nationalists could learn the most and develop their own tactics to take control of a failing territory to shape in their image. Of course the real worry is that these political groups that want to fight the reality of 21st century geo-politics and protect the myth of the self-contained Sovereign Nation-State will succeed. In the face of a lack of arguments for embracing a post-Nation world, we may see the final failure of the great Enlightenment Experiment.